Cuba has changed so much since last time went. Right after I landed Havana, I heard the announcement of Obama taking a momentous step of restoring full relations of the U.S. with Cuba. This erased the last trace of “cold war” hostility and the communist country since then, would never be the same.
I still remember only chartered flights were available between the U.S. and Cuba. Most travelers could fly to Havana from Toronto (only 3 hours away!), or Mexico. Now, 20 direct flights (some are even daily) are opened from cities like Miami and Los Angeles to Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. Though available, advertisements were rare, and mobile phones were not popular (yeah, no phubbers), and even common U.S. franchise, like Walmart, Starbucks, and Mcdonalds, wouldn’t be seen in Havana. I was to be charged for a few bucks an hour to use Wi-Fi in the hotel lobby. So, I thought, “what the heck”, and I had a few days in my recent life that I am off completely off the phone, and it felt… weird.
I stayed at the Mercure Sevilla La Habana and it was a historic European-style hotel with refined and spacious rooms, rooftop restaurant, a terrace bar (that had a great view of the city including the Parliament), and an outdoor pool. It is only located in a few blocks away from everything – the Parliament, Old Havana, or Melacon. Every morning I turned on CNN, opened the giant window and enjoyed the glorious view of the Parliament, countless old buildings and vintage cars that I almost thought I traveled back to 1953. These hotels were certainly not listed on hotel.com or booking.com. I had to search for hotel booking websites in Cuba, and those websites usually had about 10-20 hotels in Havana listed. Today, they could be found in booking.com and the price is already doubled.
The flea market in Old Havana’s Plaza de Armas is simply terrific. The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, shops, and live music. The market is the end result of a scavenger hunt, and it’s full of treasures. It opens in the morning and closes at around 4 pm. Old books, records, paintings, jewelry… what amazed me was that I saw a lot of vintage watches or old cameras, which might take a trillion years to find, or even be non-existent in my hometown, were just sitting there in the stalls, and were sold at wonderful prices. If you are ready to haggle, it would be your shopping paradise. I got a Raketa spring watch, which was made in the 50s in U.S.S.R. for about 20 bucks, fake or authentic, I thought it was awesome and I am still wearing it every day.
What to buy in Cuba?
Apart from COHIBA cigars (that I would mention below), there are many other unique souvenirs that you could buy home in local stores or market.
Like Hand-made traditional music instruments – Clave, Maracas, or Guiro. More, check out the Bongo drums, bata, boko or tumbo; for alcohol, light rum and silver dry would be perfect for making a nice cocktail, gold rum (5 years) and dark rum (10-25 years) are suitable for serving with ice or straight up. Of course, their prices increase depends on the number of years. Havana Club is one of the most famous brands in Cuba, while others Varadero and Santiago de Cuba are quite popular too.
Another popular souvenir item is “anything-with-Che-Guvera’s-face-on-it”. T-shirt, posters, flags, coasters, towel, postcard – he is regarded as a revolutionary hero and iconically he has become a money tree to the people as an opposer of capitalism. One thing (I also mentioned in Back to 1953 – The Next Day Continues, is a three Cuban Peso-dollar note.
Another thing that I recommend would be art items or wood sculptures as home decor. There are numerous Cuban artists in the country and their work are hugely influenced by European modern art – Art pieces like sculptures of Cuban ladies or abstract objects, canvas with colorful vintage cars, street views, and cigars are very well received by the visitors.
Viñales Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1999 and it’s a unique landscape in Cuba. There, apart from the beautiful sceneries, I explore the making of a famous product that comes from Cuba – let’s live dangerously – are Cuban cigars. The Viñales Valley is about 2 hours away from the city of Havana and it’s a famous tobacco farm. Greeted by the tour guide and the driver (yet again I thought it was a group tour, but turned out it was only me), I hopped on a vintage Chevrolet, and we headed straight to the suburbs.
At first, I thought the Viñales Valley is filled with notorious drug lords and cigar making huts, it was actually not as “dangerous” as it sounded. Apart from tobacco farms (like Veguero), it is a natural wonder with lots of interesting things to see and do.
Walk through the Viñales town where there are some nice local cafes and some house with massive porches and vibrant paintings would turn into lively restaurants after dark. There, you could buy the luxurious COHIBA cigars at low prices.
Don’t forget to go to the top of the craggy low mountains and admire the unique landscapes of the valley from a viewpoint. These mountains are rich in limestone, covered in a lush rainforest with a sheer rock surface. Farms and single-story dwellings are scattered in between in the flatlands that make a picturesque impression to the viewers. Some of the farms have horseback riding tours that tourists could sign up for. However, since the farmers in the Tabacco farms are less likely to give you a guided tour in English – a visit to Veguero could be a great option as the farm include a small patch of field, drying hut and a warehouse; the workers in the farm will introduce the plantation, harvest, and process of making cigar, they will also give a live demonstration on how the cigars are rolled. in Cuba, 90% of the harvest is required to submit to the government, while the remaining 10% is in the farmers’ discretion to sell or self-use. Not only this technically legal untaxed cigars are freshly obtained from the origin, but their price is also much lower than anywhere else in the country.
There were mountains, and there were caves. Go underground and see the impressive underground cave systems, like the Cueva del Indio, or the Cueva de San Miguel of the valley. These Indian Caves are located on the outskirts of town and it would be leisure to walk through these caves and see the rocks and streams.
Lastly, the Mural de la Prehistoria is an icon of the valley. It is a giant, colorful mural painting on an exposed cliff about 4 kilometers west of the Viñales Village. The painting was designed by a Mexican artist Leovigildo Gonzalez Morillo in 1961. Viewers do not really have to get up close to the paintings is 120 meters long. The huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans in the painting symbolize the theory of evolution and it’s the best way to end your visit to the valley before heading back to Havana.